by Vicki Woods
When Germaine Greer published her book the Female Eunuch in 1970, it was grist to the earnest young women like me who had livings to earn. Dr Greer laid into ‘feminine’ women who were in bondage to men; something I never wanted to be, no fear. I read it so often that I had hundreds of lines by heart. One was: ‘The women who dare not go out without their false eyelashes are in serious psychic trouble.’
I had been a committed false-eyelash wearer in extreme youth, but I was so impressed by Dr Greer’s snappish cleverness and her impatience with the soppiness of footling women that after reading her book I hooked the gluey, spidery strips off each eyelid with my little finger (it’s the only way) and slung them out.
Dr Greer, as every newspaper reader knows by now, has just published another book, on the newly fashionable menopause. I won’t go into the virtues of the new book here. But I must say I was very struck by the WYSIWYG photograph of the author on the jacket. (Computer language: What You See Is What You Get.) Dr Greer chooses to pose for her picture square-on in a hard light with a cloud of grey hair and unsmiling, with every line and wrinkle en clair. Very brave. Most ageing women who are photographed for publicity purposes have gauze and filters and soft lighting à la Norman Parkinson to help them along (Parks is dead now, alas, and who’s to replace him?) and the dabbing, soothing fingers of a professional make-up artist to coax an acceptably attractive image from faded materials. I recently posed for a picture myself without benefit of a beautician, and spent many a long moment shading and blushing and practising a ‘brush’ smile to the top of my bent before I was led to camera. ‘Erm, it’s a very hard light,’ said the poor photographer, clocking my 43-year-old face at the horribly early hour. ‘Can you turn sort of sideways on?’
These days, I meet women all day whose maquillage is perfect, whose skin is polished like porcelain. I commute into London every morning in formal office clothes to a full-time job. I use a variety of trains from the spivvy 125s with tablecloths and proper breakfasts to ancient puffers that have no tables in the first-class carriages, so we all lie back on sofa-seats with our knees touching. From Newbury to Reading I read the Mail, from Reading to Slough I skim the Telegraph and from there to Paddington I put my make-up on. Publicly. Openly. There’s just time.
The 125s are much handier for cosmetic purposes than the puffers because I can lay all the bottles and brushes and boxes on the table in front of me while I trowel away. I used to worry that the carriageful of closely shaved men in clean collars would find it disturbing, or at least, distracting. My neighbour the headhunter, for example, is very stiff-necked and silent in the early mornings, very quick to rattle his FT and purse his lips if someone gets into the carriage in tracksuit trousers and wearing headphones that go eeech-eeech eeech-eeech. There used to be a recognisable line between acceptable behaviour on a morning commuter train and unacceptable behaviour. It’s blurred now. We’ve all become used to the soap opera of the portable business telephone. (Hello? Hello, Keith? Oh, who’s that? Oh, David! Right. And good morning to you! No, it’s John. Look, is Keith in yet? Oh, right! No, I just wanted a brief word with him. No, I’m on a train. Well, look, can you give Keith a message for me? Tell him I’m on my way in, OK? That’s right!’ and so forth. Every morning I’m astonished by these soliloquies and have to chide myself for my astonishment.)
It’s the faces you have to pull while applying make-up that really worried me. I don’t know a woman who can apply mascara to her eyelashes without opening her mouth at the same time. One is taught from an early age not to open one’s mouth wide in mixed company except to speak or eat (‘Don’t gape like that!’) and I used to be very leery of the slack-mouthed, intimate moues and Os I was making while I batted my eyelashes and dabbed them with a tiny brush. These are bedroom faces, and so is the narcissistic gaze into the mirror.
In fact, of course, it isn’t narcissism but practicality. There is a terrible discipline in making up one’s face after the age of 28 when the skin has slackened and softened. It must be done with precision and care, if it is to be done at all, because beauty – or at least cosmetic perfection, which is all that most of us can hope for – is measured in millimetres. Imprecisely placed make-up (lipstick that slides a smidgeon out of line, or eyeshadow that wings minutely wider over one eye than the other) makes a woman look not polished and groomed and prinked and prettied but half drunk, or even recently beaten. And if your hand shakes slightly, as it’s likely to do even on a 125 if you’re sitting on a bogey, it takes a very long time to poke a brushful of Chestnut Ultra Perfection Mascara (with Real Cashmere) on to every separate eyelash while one’s mouth hangs open in that babyish little O.
It’s only fairly recently that I’ve been able to put my make-up on in public. (I suppose I don’t mean ‘in public’ now that I see it written down. I mean ‘in front of men I’m not married to’.) I could only do touchings-up before. Pull out a jewel-like lipstick and a mirror, touch up, pop back into the bag. Open a powder compact, dab briskly, snap it shut. Thus far – fine. But I couldn’t sit there for 20 minutes doing a major redesign job from the foundation upwards, because I felt very silly about the time it took. I used to have to lock myself in the noisome train lavatories where there are no (clean) flat surfaces to put the mirror and bottles, and do it standing up, holding my breath, in a bad light, only emerging as the train stalled in the purlieus of Paddington to give a final dash of Rouge Podium to the lips and breathe again. One morning I sat next to Candida Lycett-Green, a serious beauty in her youth and still the cynosure of all commuter eyes from Pewsey onwards even though we are a grandmother. She vigorously set to with the tips of her fingers and a bottle of Clinique; all the men in the carriage watched her and I watched all the men in the carriage. I said I thought she was brave. Why? she asked. I said, ‘I couldn’t bear to be disapproved of by a carriageful of men.’ She said she didn’t think they did disapprove. ‘I think they’re probably fascinated,’ she said, with all the confidence that beauty brings. ‘They watch each stage and think, I wonder if my wife does that?’ From that moment on, I threw off my chains and pulled out all the make-up I had: concealer, shader, blusher, gloss, mascara, powder. I find I can now do it even without Candida on the train. I can even do it on sofa-seat trains, with the bottles piled up on my briefcase and my elbows poking into the men each side of me. I still feel the weight of their stares, but I airily ignore them, assuming they’re ‘fascinated’.
Recently I finished fascinating just as we slid into Paddington as usual. The elderly man in handmade shoes sitting opposite me said, ‘Well, it’s too bad.’ I snapped shut the Chanel and said guiltily, ‘What’s too bad?’ ‘You’ve only just finished and we’re at Paddington now. Too late to get the benefit.’
The benefit. What was the benefit? The benefit was me with my cosmetically improved face. I gave the old boy such a glower as I got off the train to meet the enamelled women of Bond Street, my attitudes to make-up still hazy after all these years.
(The Spectator, 12 October 1991)